2016 in Review: From ACA to Zika

The Mailman School looks back at the year’s top public health stories, from opioid use and police shootings to climate change and forced migration.

December 13, 2016

In presidential election years—especially those as divisive as 2016—campaigns dominate the headlines. But look a little deeper, and readers can find public health issues making news everywhere.  

Vector-borne epidemic

In February, the World Health Organization declared the threat of mosquito-borne Zika, and its links to serious neurological birth defects, a global public health emergency. Meanwhile, Mailman School faculty helped explain who was at risk and how to respond, including by expanding access to reproductive care.

As companies fast-tracked the development of a Zika vaccine, cases abounded in Puerto Rico and many areas of Central and South America. Within the borders of the continental United States, however, the most dire Zika predictions have yet to come to pass. On November 18, WHO downgraded Zika from its “emergency” designation to a “chronic threat” that governments and citizens need to be vigilant against for the foreseeable future.

Global forces

The World Meteorological Organization has forecast that 2016 will become the hottest year on record, eclipsing 2015’s record-setting temperatures. Hearing the calls from many in the health community, global authorities, including the U.S. government, put new resources into understanding and communicating the health risks posed by a warming planet. In fact, the White House’s first published report on climate and health, released in April, cited research from the Mailman School.

Violent conflicts in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Central America have fueled forcible displacement of the largest number of people since the United Nations began tracking this data after World War II—more than 65 million people. As Lindsay Stark, associate professor in Population and Family Health, told a UN panel in September, the availability of large datasets has allowed international agencies to better track migration and displacement, including their health needs.

Domestic crises

From Charlotte, North Carolina, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, protests raged after police shootings of unarmed African-Americans—many of which were caught on camera. This year, the public health community stepped up to begin filling in the vast gaps in police violence research: a special edition of the Journal of Urban Health focused on the issue. At the Mailman School, students in Les Roberts’ Epidemiological Methods for Measuring Human Rights Abuses class researched the impact that video footage of police shootings can have on public opinion.

In Flint, Michigan, many residents are still afraid to drink, wash, or cook with tap water, more than two years after the city’s decision to switch its water supply caused dangerous levels of lead to leach into water from corroded pipes. Analysis by Peter Muennig, associate professor of Health Policy and Management, has calculated the total related social costs from the levels of lead poisoning—including lower economic productivity, higher welfare use, and additional criminal justice system costs—could reach nearly $400 million.

Across the country, the opioid crisis worsened: according to the CDC, the number of deaths from heroin has now surpassed the number of gun homicides. Researchers at the Mailman School explored the effectiveness of intervention options, including better education and oversight for physicians and pharmacists.

Legislating health, care, and rights

Voters in November cast their ballots in favor of expanding the legal uses for marijuana: Arkansas, Florida, North Dakota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania passed measures in favor of medical marijuana, while in California, Massachusetts, and Nevada, recreational marijuana use was legalized. Research from across the Mailman School revealed new insights into the long-term effects of marijuana legalization—who is using it, how old they are, how the drug is affecting users, and what impact marijuana use may have on opioid abuse.

Across the country, reproductive rights advocates played defense against state legislatures’ attempts to pass new abortion laws. In June, the Supreme Court struck down highly restrictive laws in Texas in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt; more recently, an Ohio bill proposes to restrict abortion to the six-week period before a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Throughout the year, Mailman students and alumni joined efforts to promote and protect reproductive rights—taking to heart Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards’ advice to 2016 Mailman graduates in her commencement address: “Find your place in the fight.”

In other corners of the country, states passed laws targeted against LGBT communities—a prime example is HB2, North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill.” Research by Mark Hatzenbuehler, associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences, has suggested that discriminatory laws like these undermine the physical and mental health of LGBTQ populations. The law has had large consequences on North Carolina’s economic and political climates: in response to the bill, companies and entertainers pulled out of the state.

What’s Next?

On November 8, the biggest story of 2016 became a question about 2017: What will happen under the Trump Administration? At the Mailman School, students, faculty, and staff grappled with the implications, especially for the diverse communities they aim to serve and the health disparities they hope to eliminate. And for many in public health policy, uncertainties about the healthcare system are top of mind, especially when it comes to the future of the Affordable Care Act.   

“At the end of a charged year in our history, public health is more relevant now than ever,” says Linda P. Fried, Dean and DeLamar Professor. “No matter how much uncertainty lies ahead, the unvarnished truth is that public health science is critical for effective policy and practice. Public health interventions make a real difference for people and communities everywhere, reducing stigma, lowering costs, and saving lives.”